Good Humor: Playwright Theresa Rebeck Pens a Comedy

The daring playwright Theresa Rebeck tackles Kafka and jokes in her latest work "The Understudy."

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Theresa Rebeck

Photo By George Chinsee

If literary homicide were a crime, Theresa Rebeck would be serving a rather lengthy sentence. In a recent tide of work, including “The Bells,” “The Water’s Edge” and “Mauritius,” the playwright has managed to kill off an impressive array of characters.

“Three plays running, I’ve killed someone,” she muses as she does a mental body count. “My sister Martha said to me, ‘Could you just write a comedy?’ I understood the sort of sad yearning for a good comedy and I thought, I should just write one.”

The result is “The Understudy,” a tale of a rehearsal gone hilariously awry, opening in a Roundabout production at the Laura Pels Theatre Nov. 5. In the hyperintelligent work, Justin Kirk is Harry, a talented but flailing actor, who is understudying for action movie star Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) in an undiscovered Kafka play. Julie White is Roxanne, their long-suffering stage manager and former paramour of Harry’s. Within the span of 90 minutes, “The Understudy” manages to skewer everything from the ego-numbing indignities of the theater world to the epidemic of celebrities trying their hands at Broadway.

“These are people who are out of control of their lives and there are forces they don’t understand acting on them in destructive ways…and that’s the very essence of Kafka’s world,” explains Rebeck between sips of tea from a mug decorated with Freud’s likeness. “I think actors are very complicated and charming and neurotic and there’s something I find beautiful in their humanity, that they take so much rejection and get out there every morning and do auditions.”

Rebeck’s affection is clearly mirrored in her cast’s enthusiastic romp through her piece.

“Theresa writes for actors so the three of us all have these superjuicy things to do where we have not only high emotional stakes and clear ideas about who these people are, but we also get to send out big fat softballs of jokes,” says Kirk.

Indeed, the sheer variety of her focus — from sexual power struggles in “Spike Heels” to the Alaskan Gold Rush in “The Bells” — has proved both an asset and a source of frustration in a critical community that enjoys categorizing artists. Rebeck does not suffer descriptors like “feminist” or “prolific” (she has upward of 20 plays to her name) very well.

“It was startling to me where the mere fact of being a woman who writes about women would get you labeled as someone with an agenda,” she says. “I love the humanity of my characters and I love the humanity of the audience. And I still see theater as a mass lesson in empathy.”

“She’s not genre-bound,” says Doug Hughes, who directed Rebeck’s Broadway debut “Mauritius.” “I’ve always thought that she’s so fearless and she crosses a lot of different boundaries.”

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